Volunteering outside Siem Reap, Cambodia
This post is very near and dear to Tim and I. We knew we wanted to take advantage of the time we had during our travels to volunteer at some point on the trip. Cambodia always seemed like the most likely place. Half of the 12 million people who live there are under the age of 22. (In America half the population is under 36). There are politics involved with volunteering though. Many orphanages demand a fee – and it is not insignificant. Volunteering for three to six months is the best way to get around this, but not everyone has that much time. We were lucky to run into a woman in Phuket who had just come from the Savong School and gave us the info. Our experience there was phenominal.
While no day was the same during our two weeks. Here’s what our days were filled with:
An interesting Commute
Mornings At the Orphanage
Our arrival was always greeted with anticipation. Some mornings the younger children would be on our laps before the tuk-tuk was stopped. Other days if lessons were in session we would see waves from the classroom and the older boys would instead steal our attention for a few minutes (anxious to talk about hip-hop “do you know who Nas is?”) before heading to teach the younger kids a song or game if it could be helped instead of teaching a serious lesson. The older kids sat for the next hour.
There are no tables and chairs in the orphanages. All meals take place on the kitchen floors. the floor is thoroughly mopped and swept before each meal, but that doesn’t stop it from getting dirty quickly. There are puppies at the orphanage that tend to be tempted into the kitchen by the food as well. It wasn’t an usual event find a small puddle on the floor next to where the children were sitting.
The meal consisted of rice, fish, and a broth or sauce of some sort.
After lunch the younger children and many of the older ones napped. Like most hot weather countries, it’s considered normal practice to nap and then bath perhaps a second time. I spent this time usually on a swing seat chatting with the older girls who were just returning from their morning classes. It was my favorite time of the day. I especially wanted to understand what life was like for a sixteen year old in an orphanage in Cambodia. And they wanted to know what my life was like. After several days with them no topic seemed to be off-limit. We spoke openly about life for women in Cambodia versus in America.
Teaching English at the Savong School
The school was just down the road from the orphanage and offered free English classes (or Japanese classes) to students in the surrounding villages. The school is quite popular. Classes are held from 2pm to 7pm (as not to interfere with government school). There are three classrooms that are all in use during these hours. We would teach five classes back-to-back ranging from beginner to university students. each was a unique and exhausting experience.
The biggest question we get is, “Did you know how to teach English as a second language?” The answer is no. Normally there is a Khmer teacher there that can help guide you while you teach, but the teacher who taught most of the classes we were working with was out sick the first week. We were handed a marker and told “Okay, teach.” Tim and I looked at each other, bewildered and then learned very quickly what to do. There were classes we had to teach the “perfect continuous tense”, classes that were learning about careers, and then there was our fourth class. That was when over 50 young children would fill into the small cinderblock classroom. As they came in the heat would rise and the smell assaulted our noses. This class learned shapes and farm animals. We spent a lot of the class yelling over them the lyrics to songs like Old McDonald. Before this class began I would sit on the side and watch the kids play games in the grass. I was enthralled by the way they played. No one was left out, no one was made fun of, everyone just smiled. Tim and I tried to remember what the lives of these children were like. Learning English was an indulgence for them. They were thankful to be there. Tim and I were never left alone for too much time to get lost in though though. Between classes children loved to practice their English with us. They also wanted me to tell them what snow was like, and American foods. I felt like I was telling them fairly tales. Of course, now I feel like I’m telling you fairy tales, about a society so innocent that they don’t know to be cynical. They don’t know they’re supposed to think school is lame and call other kids names to make them feel superior. They grow up to be the kinds of people that you want to make up this world.
Maybe it’s just the old axiom that you can’t help others without helping yourself, but there’s no doubt that we learned more than we taught during those weeks. We know absolutely that it was the single greatest thing we did while in Asia, and we would love to do it again. There’s nothing better than volunteering, if you do it in the right place. We got to help people who sincerely needed our help in the world, and at the same time it made us better people.
Also, because I can’t help myself please enjoy these other moments from the orphanage:
“You and I can’t change the world, but we can change ourselves. We can change our own families, and we can even change our own neighborhoods. There, nobody has excuses.”
– Manu Chao